PORTLAND, Maine (AP) — Maine has announced plans to continue offering free meals to students for the 2022-23 school year and beyond.

The efforts by the federal government to provide free breakfast and lunch for all students illustrated the importance of providing meals for all students, not just those who meet income requirements, the Portland Press Herald reported.

“We’ve seen such tremendous benefits associated with offering meals to students and giving them the choice to take them,” said Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokesperson for the School Nutrition Association, a nonprofit advocating for high-quality, low-cost meals for students nationwide. “It really makes sure every child who needs that meal and who depends on school meals gets those meals.”

According to the Maine Department of Education, 38% of students, or 65,000 students, qualify for free or reduced meals.

Child hunger advocates say that in its current form, the school meal program overlooks students who may not qualify based on income or are experiencing other factors that impeded access to healthy food.

Anna Korsen, director of advocacy for Full Plates Full Potential, a nonprofit working to end childhood hunger in Maine, said the decision is “a huge step in the right direction.”

Deborah Jendrasko, a cafeteria worker in Portland Public Schools, said that she has seen a need for school meals during the pandemic and doesn’t expect it to subside soon. About 48% of Portland students qualify for free or reduced meals.

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